Google's Chrome OS netbook will hit the market in mid-2011, but in the meantime Google is placing thousands of "Cr-48" prototype devices in the hands of testers to help iron out the bugs. As the devices are built specifically to run one program - the Chrome browser - the functionality is a bit limited. But after testing out one of the devices for the past day, I've come up with a list of ten things you can (and cannot) do with a Chrome OS computer.
You can: Get online fast. Open up the notebook and within 12 or 13 seconds you'll get to the password screen. Type in your password, hit "enter," and you'll be in the Chrome browser after another 15 seconds, and the computer will automatically connect to a wireless network. This is fast, compared to my Windows 7 ThinkPad, which takes over a minute just to get to the password screen. The Chrome OS prototype is also blazingly fast when it comes to exiting sleep mode.
You cannot: Work offline (yet). Google has promised offline access to Google Docs, with changes being synced to the online version after one connects to the Internet. So far, it doesn't work, but Google tells me offline access will arrive early in 2011. In the meantime, the New York Times application from the Chrome Web Store does work offline.
You can: Connect to the Internet using Wi-Fi or Verizon 3G. If you don't have a Wi-Fi connection, the Chrome OS netbooks come with 100MB of Verizon 3G connectivity per month, for free, with the option of purchasing more. According to Google, this is "enough for hundreds of emails or occasional browsing."
You cannot: Share your phone's data connection with a USB tether. My attempt to get online by tethering my Motorola Droid to Cr-48 via a USB cable was futile, even though it works perfectly on my Windows laptop. However, Google tells me you can "tether with an Android phone that creates a wireless network, and join that." Some tethering programs enable Bluetooth connections, but this doesn't seem to work either.
You can: Avoid viruses. There is no anti-virus software for the Chrome OS netbook, but that doesn't mean you're in any danger.
I was a little skeptical about this at first, but Google's explanation makes sense: "On your Chrome notebook, each web page and application you visit runs in a restricted environment called a "sandbox." So if you visit an infected page, it can't affect the other tabs or apps on your computer, or anything else on your machine. The threat is contained.
"Even if malware manages to escape the sandbox, your Chrome notebook is still protected. Every time you boot the computer, it does a self check called Verified Boot. If it detects that your system has been tampered with, or corrupted in any way, typically it will repair itself without you lifting a finger. You will always be able to get back to an operating system thats as good as new."
You cannot: Download any file you want. Protecting a machine is a little bit easier when there are only certain types of files the computer is capable of reading. I think you can technically download anything you want, but the only file types that can be opened are .DOC, .PDF, .HTML and various image formats. Google promises to add more file types in the future.
You can: Print. The new Google Cloud Print will let you print wirelessly from your Chrome OS device, provided that you have previously set up the service through the Chrome browser on your Windows machine. Google says Mac and Linux support is coming soon.
You cannot: Manage storage devices, or iPods and Android phones. The USB slot, as of now, is just for hooking up a mouse, keyboard or an external dongle for a hard-wired Internet connection. Inserting an SD card does nothing. However, Google says it will eventually provide support for USB storage devices through a software update.
On the SD card front, Google tells me "SD cards are not supported right now, but we're working on it. You can turn on an experimental feature to start getting some functionality, but it's not fully baked yet." I haven't figured out how to turn on the experimental feature, however.
You can: Watch YouTube videos. I tested YouTube out on my Chrome OS laptop and my Windows 7 ThinkPad, both running the Chrome browser on the same wireless network, and noticed no major difference.
You cannot: Watch high-quality streaming video. I also tested out live sports coverage on ESPN3.com, and found it to be almost unwatchable on the Chrome OS laptop. ESPN3 ups the streaming quality based on your hardware and Internet connection, and with my Windows 7 laptop I got four out of five bars, but only one bar on the Chrome OS device. The difference was obvious: the video on Chrome OS was blurry and choppy.
Additionally, although Cr-48 has a VGA port, the cable I use to hook up my Windows 7 laptop to my flat-screen TV monitor does not work with the Chrome OS netbook.
So there you have it - ten things you can and can't do with the Chrome OS netbook. I think this is a device with great potential, in large part because of the eight-hour battery life, quick startup and shutdown and security features. The super-fast shutdown and startup is quite useful when the device becomes unresponsive - the first time Chrome OS froze on me was my first "Windows" moment with the machine. However, I don't see Chrome OS replacing Windows for most users, both on the consumer and business front, because it does almost nothing but surf the web.
Perhaps this will change as Google improves upon the operating system. Support for USB devices will help for consumers who want to view documents and pictures. Remember that this is just a prototype device, and many of the issues I mentioned in this blog post may be resolved through software updates. (One little quirk that annoys me is the lack of a delete key, especially when viewing e-mail).
This is certainly a nice companion device for quick Web access, but Google's vision of "100% Web" will require ubiquitous Internet connectivity, cloud storage services with greater security, privacy and failover controls, and further advances in Web-based productivity applications. The Chrome OS netbook is fun to use, but it may simply be ahead of its time.
Finally, if you want to see a video of the Chrome OS prototype in action, check out this review by Shane O'Neill and Al Sacco of CIO.com.
Jon Brodkin writes about Microsoft, Google, browsers, operating systems, PCs, mobile devices, cloud computing, virtualization, open source and a bunch of other tech stuff for Network World. He also cares just a little bit too much about Boston sports teams. Follow Jon on Twitter @jbrodkin.
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